Meanwhile, On July 4, 1776

In Philadelphia, the great men
with their great status and
aspirations debated
if these colonies should declare
themselves independent states
from their strict Mother, Britain.
Some decried the annoying nature
of their colleagues in the heat
of early summer. Their small war
was fought with ideas and rhetoric,
the ordnance of intellectuals.
It’s doubtful, in their deliberations,
they knew that 350 miles north
of their fight for independence,
men who had for the past year fought
against British, Loyalist and Iroquois
lead and steel, struggled, too,
at Fort Crown Point on Lake Champlain.
The good Doctor Bebe, charged
with their care, declared that day,
“Since I have been writing, one more
of our men has made his exit.
Death visits us almost every hour.”
In the next week, while the paper
declaring independence marched north
in triumph, the gentlemen officers
at Crown Point, without debate,
declared it time to abandon their dead
and marched their weary army south.
When these battle-baptized farmers,
shopkeepers and hunters, survivors
of a war not yet designated, met t
he document not yet titled, at their
new fort, not yet named, they renamed
this place on Rattlesnake Hill for why
they fought—Mount Independence.

 

Heroes

It was August 28th and Cindy Bingham knew her father, Walter, had fallen off the wagon again.

He’d gotten falling-down drunk around this time for each of the twenty-one years since August 28, 1862 etched its physical and emotional wounds upon him that never quite healed.

After sitting all night in a rocking chair by the fireplace in the Bingham home outside Stony Point, New York, Cindy heard the thud outside. This time Walter’s fall was as literal as could be. His brother-in-law Hiram Mott thought he saw Walt misstep onto the dusty road from the front seat of Hiram’s rig as it slowly passed in front of the Bingham place at dawn on August 29, 1883. Hiram had been drinking with Walt all day, just to keep him safe, but was too drunk to do much about his brother-in-law’s tumble anyway.

The clop-clop of his horses’ hooves drowned any sound from behind as they never stopped. The pair of bays just kept trotting north to the Mott place, their reins slack and their master dozing along for the ride. They’d made the trip many times with Hiram before.

Walter’s fall was also from his normal sobriety. That date and its memories had again set him to drinking day and night since the evening of the 26th.

Cindy Bingham found her father by the side of the road when she emerged bleary-eyed from the house about the time she normally would begin the day’s milking. It was a job she shared with her father since the death of her mother, Martha, two years before.

Always he would turn into this other Walt at the end of August. Then he’d slowly return to the quiet, sober and loving husband to Martha and father to Cynthia everyone knew as the local hero.

As she helped her father into the house, she recalled Walt hardly ever took out that medal, with its blue ribbon with thirteen red and white stripes, honoring his heroism,. Most especially not at the end of August. Instead, he’d only pull out the three old photographs that portrayed five smiling young men posing in impeccable uniforms whose exotic design was borrowed from the French Zouaves.

All of these young men wore the confident and guileless grins of soldiers who had not faced an enemy in combat. They’d not yet left Stony Point and heard the whiz and crunch of enemy bullets missing or finding their mark. They’d yet to feel the body-shaking concussion of a Parrot shell as it obliterated the men next to you and threw you six feet away, turning the world into swirls of red, white and gray. They had not yet “seen the elephant,” as the veteran soldiers described their baptisms in fire.

As she peeled Walter’s filthy clothes off her father before putting him to bed, Cindy Bingham recalled the first time she equated this room with this date.

When she was eight, she watched from the barely open bedroom door as Walt opened the cigar box where he kept the photos that turned him from doting father to brooding and distant stranger. That was when she connected the date and the contents of the box with an abnormally short and frightening temper. She had seen him lash out with his voice and the back of his hand to her mother should she try too much to console him. That day, she watched Walt carry his photos to the barn, where he sat with his back to its south-facing red wall. He gazed at them when he wasn’t staring into space or covering his eyes and shaking his shoulders.

Cindy remembered how she crept to the clothes press where Walt kept the box and opened its lid to see whatever could make her father change so.

Inside, she found the medal. It was a tarnished upside-down five-pointed star topped by an eagle perched on crossed cannons. The star was suspended from a ribbon that reminded her of the flag under which her father was said to have fought with great distinction in the War of Southern Rebellion. Beneath the medal, along with some documents and letters, she found another photo of her father, its image face-down. The photo was of Walt Bingham in the plain blue uniform of an Army sergeant, a grim and tired expression on his face and the still-shiny medal pinned to his chest.

The little girl heard the bedroom door open and there stood Walt, his eyes rimmed in red.

“What are you doing?” he said, in a voice caught somewhere between anger and anguish. He rushed to her and, before he could take the box from her, Cindy dropped it in fear, its contents spilling on the bedroom floor.

“Look what you’ve done. Don’t ever touch this box again, girl or I’ll…” Walter raised his hand as if he might strike Cindy, but stopped and dropped to his knees to put the photos, documents and medal back in it. Cindy, in tears, rushed past her father and downstairs to her mother. Together, Martha and Cindy watched as Walter rode away from the house and did not return until August 29, as drunken and disheveled as the man she was helping into their home on this morning in 1882.

* * * *

Once she was back in the kitchen, Walter softly snoring off his bender, Cindy thought back to when she was ten, when she finally got the courage to ask her father the question that had burned in her for two years.

“Daddy, why do you get so sad and angry when August turns to September?”

Walter Bingham, softly put his mug of coffee down on the kitchen table, closed his eyes and mumbled, “You’re not old enough to understand, Cynthia. I hope you never have to. Now go help your mother, please.”

It was her mother, Martha, who told Cindy that her father had returned from the war a changed man.

“He left New York a cheerful and strapping boy, so dashing in his blue jacket with its and red brocade trim, his baggy crimson trousers. I watched the gold tassel on his red kepi bounce to the martial air they played while his regiment marched to the train in Peekskill, bound for Baltimore that morning in 1861. He was the most handsome boy in that regiment.”

“Were you proud of him?” Cindy asked.

“Oh, my yes. He was my betrothed and I was the envy of all my friends. But, inside, I was terrified of what might happen to him, how I might become a war widow before we’d ever become married.”

“And what happened when he was away and then came back?” Cindy asked, because this was the answer she really wanted.

“In three years, that dashing boy returned a wounded hero. The people of Stony Point greeted him with honors fit for a victorious returning knight. The young man who limped off the train resembled my beloved Walter, but he was not the same boy I’d kissed goodbye. And that’s all I’ll say right now, Cynthia. Now off to school with you,” Martha said, giving Cindy a kiss, then turning to her dishes and pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve to dab at her eye and across her nose.

* * * *

Cindy made a pot of coffee, as much for her sleep-deprived self as for her deeply sleeping father. As she waited for the water to boil, she knew that by the second week of September, he would return to his normal self. Once again he’d be the loving and industrious Walt Bingham she knew better than anyone. Once again, he’d be a citizen of Stony Point who people would always greet on the streets with a doffed hat and a simple and warm, “Good morning, Walt!” or nod of the head and proper “Hello, Mr. Bingham. Good day to you, sir.”

Walt would politely acknowledge his treatment as the town’s foremost citizen, though he eschewed any attempts to draw him into political circles or any public activities, including meetings of the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Three years ago, when she was fifteen, it was through a talk with one of those veterans, her uncle Hiram, that Cynthia learned the true genesis of her father’s hero status. That and his annual temporary metamorphosis into a drunken misanthrope.

“It happened at a place called Manassas in Virginia, Cindy,” Hiram said. “Your papa’s company was in reserve of other units who were putting up a great battle against the forces of the Rebel General Jackson, a brilliant soldier and brutal man who got his comeuppance in ’63 at Chancellorsville. But that’s neither here nor there to Walt’s story.”

“His company was ordered to fill a gap on the left side of the line, where the 5th New York was taking a terrible fire and beginning to falter. Your papa rushed up and took his position just as the 5th began falling back. Men were dropping, dead or wounded, all around him. The ground was so covered with them in their tattered once-grand uniforms that Walter had to quick-step atop their bodies to rush up to his position in the line,” Hiram said.

Cynthia gasped.

“Sorry to spell it out like this, little niece, but I think you should know why your papa is the way he is. Now amid all this chaos, Walter’s company, under fierce fire, began to waver and fall back. He, with a handful of other men, began running down a ravine that led toward our lines. In the woods above this little group of New York boys, Walt saw the Reb officers were dressing their line before making another charge. Your papa, already a corporal and a very smart soldier, realized the Rebels would likely strike at our big guns protecting the entire Corps’ left flank. That’s when he left his friends to go alert the artillery to their danger,” Hiram said, crossing his arms and rubbing his chin whiskers with his left hand.

“The Rebs saw what Walt was doing and started firing at him. I was with the guns and we watched him running like a rabbit, never expecting him to make it. He sprinted through the enemy fire, bullets tearing at his uniform and one ball cutting across his ribs,” Hiram said.

“I’ve seen the scar. Papa always tries to cover it, but I’ve seen it,” Cindy said.

“When he went down, we thought sure he was dead. But son of a bitch if he didn’t pop right back up and start running again. Funny thing about that. While we was hollering for Walter to run, the Rebs was cheering for him, too. Not that they wasn’t still trying to kill him, of course. When he got to the artillery commander, your papa reported the enemy were gathering in force in the woods on his left flank and the colonel would lose his guns if he did not limber them up and get them the blazes out of there. Which they did, by the scarcest of margins. They most surely would have been lost, our flank overrun and the whole army lost with them if not for your papa. After they patched Walter up and the officers made their report of what he did, they awarded Walt that Medal of Honor,” Hiram said and then spat at the ground.

“And that’s why he’s sad every year at this time? You would think he would be proud to have earned that medal. He’s a hero,” Cindy said, beaming with pride after hearing the story her father never told.

“Well, sweet girl, that’s not how war works. War affects men in different ways. Your papa was pretty shaken up by that Reb ordnance and musket fire chasing him down the ravine and the bullet that tore through his side. But what really wounded him was the fact that all the men he was with up on the line were lost. And those four men he broke off from to warn our guns? Not two seconds later, a Reb shell burst in their midst and, well…let’s just say they were lost, too. Walt was the only survivor of his whole platoon.” Hiram spat again.

“Those four men wouldn’t be…”

“The young fellas in that photograph he keeps? Yes, dear girl. All school chums who joined up for the fancy outfits that impressed the girls like your Mama, the precision marching that impressed themselves, and to put down the secession in a couple of months. It took four years and thousands of lives. Some, like Walter, are still walking around, still sharing the warmth of his loved ones. But, come the anniversary of that day, he goes dead as his friends inside, too. Now you dry those tears, girl, and know how lucky you are to have Sergeant Walter Bingham of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry as your father. And to know you have Walt Bingham, as strong and saintly a man as ever drawn breath, as your papa, period.”

It was that day Cindy vowed to help soften her loving but quiet father’s sadness, pain, guilt, or whatever tortured him so, most especially every late August.

* * * *

Her father still sleeping off 1883’s sorrowful fall, Cynthia discussed her father’s invisible wounds with her beau, Robert Van Wormer, who stopped by to see how she was faring with her father back home.

“My father tries so hard, Robert. And Lord knows I did my best to make sure everything was neat and quiet and loving these past years since Mama died. She once told me she almost made it happen one year when I was two. She hid the cigar box and the photographs from him. But by noon on the 28th, he became so melancholy, she said she thought he would harm himself. That’s when she gave in and showed him where she’d put it,” Cindy said with a catch in her throat.

“Out came the pictures and Mother said Daddy was gone for the next day and a half. That date has a power over him that she could never rein in and I’m not sure how I can. It’s like the sadness lies in the ground like a cicada and pops out to overwhelm whatever good we can bring to it. We are lucky he and his faith and love for us was so strong that he can soon enough bury it again until the next year.”

“You know, there may be a way,” Robert said. “Maybe if he took the cure, the whole treatment at the spa up in Saratoga. The waters, the baths, massage, just getting away from all these same faces and places, might just jar him into something other than his melancholy.”

“let me think abut it, Robert. And thank you for being such a love,” Cindy said, kissing Robert on the cheek.

* * * *

Good as his word, Robert suggested taking Walter away from home that August, taking the steamer up the Hudson to Saratoga for the springs and mineral baths, and not returning until the 29th or even the 30th.

“I don’t know if that would be the answer, Robert. But perhaps taking the cure at the Springs might be the thing to help keep my mind at rest and away from those horrible visions, those faces, those… Yes, let’s take the trip,” Walt said to the earnest young man.

A few days later, Walt and Robert were back in Stoney Point, Walt in roughly the same shape as all the preceding August 28ths.

“Robert, what in the world? How did this happen?” Cindy said to her crestfallen beau after they half-carried a very sick Walter to his bed.

“Everything was going extremely well, Cindy. The trip upriver to Albany was beautiful and the train to Saratoga was fine. Your father was a little quiet, perhaps reticent to speak openly of his problems with me, but once we got to the town, I think he actually got caught up in the whole spirit of the place. The baths there were still buzzing after the record win of the Travers Stakes race by a horse name Rataplan. It was all they could talk…”

“Robert, my father? I sent him off with you to avoid another occasion like all those other years. Please explain how he ended up like this while supposedly in your care,”  Cindy said, holding here hand up in front of Robert’s face.

“We were in one of the baths, having just finished a good steam and were getting massages, all part of the treatment I hoped would help your father. We couldn’t help but hear one of the other masseurs talking to a guest on the other side of the room from us. ‘Yes sir,’ he was saying, ‘this old place has quite the history. Famous folks from far and wide have come here for the waters and their healing powers. George Washington himself wanted to buy one of our springs for its bubbling waters. Just last week Commodore Vanderbilt, Diamond Jim Brady and Miss Lillian Russell herself stopped by for the baths and a massage. Why even that Rebel General Stonewall Jackson came right to Saratoga for the mineral springs and such on his honeymoon with the second Mrs. Jackson.’”

“Oh, no,” Cindy said.

“Next thing I hear is your father’s masseur saying, ‘Sir, please, you’ll have to relax just a little. You’ve stiffened up rather severely.’ Straight away, Walter, not even bothering to cover himself with a sheet, ran out of the room to grab his clothes and disappear out a back door. I couldn’t catch him, Cindy. I’m so sorry. I spent the day and night scouring every saloon and casino I could find searching for him. I eventually found Walt the next morning, the 28th, out cold in an alley behind the Adelphi Hotel on Broadway. I cleaned him up best I could, and we took the next train to Albany and on home.”

“Oh, Robert, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve to be brought into this so deeply,” Cindy said.

“I don’t think there’s any more we can do, Cindy. That date and those memories are too strong. And, if I am to be Walter’s son-in-law some day, his welfare will be as much my problem as yours,” Robert said, as he took Cindy’s hand.

In October of that same year, Robert asked Walter for Cynthia’s hand in marriage. Cindy could see her father’s habitually passive expression Walter was overjoyed, because he now knew Robert to be a young man of integrity and respect for not only his daughter, but himself as well.

“So have you picked a date for the nuptials, Cindy? Sometime in June? I understand June is the month most brides cherish for the occasion,” Walt said, his arms around his daughter.

“We’ve decided upon August 28th.” She tugged her father closer, as Walt’s embrace grew limp.

“No, Cindy. I can’t, you mustn’t, I…”

“Daddy, Mother always said that it was the horrible memories of what happened on that date in 1862 that hurt you so. And I figured perhaps I could give you something good on that day to help soften some of those bad things,” Cindy said, her eyes welling up.

Walter, a head taller than his daughter, looked not at her, but at the wall behind her, as he would on those days when he would sit with his back to the barn wall, searching for something but not finding it. He gave a great sigh.

“My darling girl, since your mother’s death you are all I have. You are my life. I would not wish to lose you to any man, with the possible exception of young Robert.” Walter gave a slight grin. “And I adore you for this gesture and will accede to your wish. And with God’s help, we shall see you a glorious bride and I the proud and joyful papa come this August 28th next.”

* * * *

On August 24th, 1885, Walter Bingham gave a cigar box to his daughter, telling her to keep it safe for him. And though he was subdued and quiet for the next four days, Walter looked every bit the proud father of the bride as they walked down the aisle of the Reformed Church in Stony Point.

Walter hired a photographer take portraits to remember that day. He kept but one on the mantle of his home for the rest of his life. His daughter had helped turn it into life that, while not as lighthearted and high-spirited as the boy who left Stony Point in 1861, was never again as broken as the man who returned in 1863. In fact, it turned quite hopeful.

The photo on the mantle was a hand-tinted portrait of Walter and Cindy. He in his fine morning coat and cravat and she in her her mother’s wedding dress. On his lapel, beneath the pink rose, he sported a locket containing a small portrait of Martha. On her bodice, Cynthia wore an odd piece of shiny jewelry, which the photographer had painted in watercolor tints of yellow for the upside-down star and pink and blue for the ribbon.

Robert had given Walt the frame in which he displayed it, gilded and bearing one word upon a scroll at its bottom. It read, HEROES.

I was inspired to write “Heroes” by a story I read about some Vietnam vets and decided to superimpose that inspiration, on Memorial Day, upon America’s defining conflict, the Civil War.

This is a revised version of the original, incorporating suggestions by Julie Duffy and other members of the Story-a-Day writers and critique group. My thanks for their insight and generosity.

The Barksdale Pigeons

It was the singing that brought Tammany Bazanac out to the porch. She was used to hearing the soldiers singing, but she never had heard a tune so odd and voices so, well, foreign as these.

As the olive drab canvas covered trucks, white five-pointed stars on their doors, rumbled past Madame Sabine’s Rest on the road from Shreveport to Barksdale, Tammany stood on the porch to see what new flyers might be visiting Madame’s house some upcoming weekend. But instead of the usual pink-cheeked farm boys or earnest college men, Tammany saw faces she’d only seen before in the laundry where her Maw-Maw would take her Paw-Paw’s shirts for washing and his collars for starching down home in Alexandria.

The talk among the locals started that same day.

The people in town were suspicious of these Asian men who arrived in Shreveport in the Spring of 1943. After all, this was a military town, hard by an important United States Army Air Force training field. And hadn’t those slant-eyes pulled a sneak attack on just such a facility at Hickham Field on December 7, just two years ago?

The fact that these young trainees were from the Nationalist Chinese Air Corps, sworn enemies of the Japanese who had invaded their land, was lost on some of the residents of Sh. To them, someone who looked like that was not to be trusted. And when the sirens would sound, the thought that a sneak attack from inside Barksdale Army Air Field was never far from their minds.

After about twenty years of it, the people of Shreveport had grown used to the various roars of the fighters and bombers that raced or thundered over town as they took off or landed from Barksdale. They never quite got used to the wail of the siren, which didn’t mean to seek cover from an air raid by enemy bombers. Rather, these sirens coincided with a column of black smoke rising above the base, the town and everyone’s consciousness, as another training aircraft crashed, carrying from one to ten young souls to violent death.

Each day, all day, the skies around the northeast portion of Louisiana would fill with flocks of olive and khaki camouflaged aircraft bearing the USAAF’s white star on the dark blue circle. On weekends, though, it was the town that would fill with white boys in olive and khaki. They were like pieces of crusty white bread cast casually around the streets for the young women of Bossier to attempt swooping up. Each was intent in getting her talons into an officer in this weekly battle before another girl bagged the same young hero for herself.

Hence, the American flyboys christened the local girls The Barksdale Pigeons.

Many a local girl had captured her piece of the white American Dream over the years, by one means or another, because white bread was the only item on the Barksdale Field menu.

That was until 1943, when the Barksdale became home to training squadrons from the Free French Army de l’Air and the Nationalist Chinese Air Force. That also marked the spark of the first civil war battle in those parts since the Rebs whipped the Yanks during the Red River Campaign in 1864.

When Sous-Lieutenant Hertienne joined his comrades in a stop by Madame Sabine’s Rest one weekend, he was stunned to hear his native tongue being murmured or moaned from behind the doors and curtains of Mademoiselle Sabine’s carnal cafe.

“Ohh, chér…” he’d heard at one end of the hall.

Ca c’est bon, lover,” Hertienne heard from the other.

The accents were strange, but that was definitely French being spoken in paid-for rapture by some of the girls who worked for the Madame.

“Did these girls learn le français just for us?” he asked Sabine in the smoky front sitting room of her establishment.

Mais, non, cher,” she said in her own odd accent. “Deez girls just speaking dare own language. Many of us here are Cajuns from downriver and we still speak some of the mother tongue from our borning up in Canada. And where in France are you from, cher?”

“I am not,” Hertienne said.

Pardonne-moi, chéri?”

“From France. My family is from Tonkin in Indochine.” Hertienne said.

“Isn’t that near Shreveport?” the Madame said and laughed her roof-rattling laugh that always brought every eye in the place on her, which was her intent.

But the Rest’s door then opened and who walked in ripped attention from the Madame like the wings off a Stearman trainer pulling out of a 200 mph dive. Standing in the doorway were three Chinese flyers who had heard that Madame Sabine’s was a place where anyone could be shown a good time, if the asking price was paid. And they’d just been paid.

“Well now, looky here,” the Madame said, cutting the silence with her entrepreneurial will as much as her brand of mercenary Southern hospitality.

“Been waitin’ to see if any you China boys would show up here someday and now here you are. Come on in, boys, come in. We serve any of our valiant boys who dare in the air, ‘cept maybe dem Tuskeegee boys. Dis house still have some standards, even in a war,” Sabine said.

Hertienne observed the arrival with a disdain born of his upbringing on his father’s rice plantation and then as a junior colonial government official in Hanoi. He’d also seen the increasing Chinese influence on the Tonkinese population, including the influx of Communists, before the war began.

“I do not like these Chinese,” he whispered to his friend Bizot. “They are seeking to set fire to an already smoking pile of yellow reeds, no better than the Japanese or Nazis.”

While two of the Chinese airmen were of average height for a European or American flyer, the third was smaller, wiry and Hertienne thought had an edge to him he’d seen before.

“Come in, boys. Allez, allez,“ Sabine said, movng toward the door and extending her hands wide as if to hug all three at once. The smallest of the three moved first.

In fluent French he asked if Madame Sabine had any problem serving Chinese flyers.

Non, non, cher. As I said before, we are here to show you valiant boys southern hospitality with a spicy Louisiana charm all our own.”

Hertienne heard the airman speak French and immediately had him pegged as Tonkinese, perhaps from the western reaches of the Red River Delta.

Tammany, emerging from the kitchen, heard it, as well. She was at first confused by these men, their physical features, including color, as well as the confidence with which they approached the Madame and introduced themselves and established rules of engagement for their evening entertainment.

Tammany thought, ‘Cepting for his eyes and hair, that China boy could be one of ol’ Aunt Thelma’s boys back in Alexandria. And that was true. Because Tammany came from a mixed race family purer than the gumbo of so many Louisianans. She was what was known in the South as a high yellow, classified as black according to the nefarious one-drop rule, despite having primarily white European ancestry. With her pale olive skin, black curly hair and light hazel eyes, Tammany was quite in demand by some of Madame Sabine’s regular clientele who preferred a more exotic-looking companion. That included Denis Hertienne.

Tammany walked right past Hertienne to stand with the Madame, smiling her most beguiling smile and batting her thick lashes drawing even more attention to eyes that didn’t need it.

Bonsoir. Je m’appelle Tammany. Quel est ton?” she said.

“Good evening, Mademoiselle Tammany. I am Lieutenant Dinh Hien Chien,” the young Vietnamese flyer replied in barely accented English.

“Oh, I heard your speak French before, so I thought…”

“Vietnamese, French, Chinese, Tagalog, English and a little Dutch. I went to university in California, but I also given an excellent early education by the Jesuits in Hanoi,” Dinh said with a smile.

“Oh my, oh my. And what do I call you, cher? I think we’re going to get to know one another better for the month or so you’re here in Bossier,” Tammany said.

“Lieutenant Dinh will suffice for now, Miss…? I’m sorry, I missed your name before while I was becoming entranced with your stunning eyes.”

“Tammany. I’m Tammany, Lieutenant Dan.”

“Dinh, like ‘ja-know that pretty girl?’ without the ‘oh’ on the end.”

Hertienne was suddenly at Tammany’s elbow.

“I believe we had a date set for this evening, Tammany, non?” he said, stepping between and Dinh.

“I’m no one’s private property, Denis, not even the Madame’s. I am in her employ and take on companions as I see fit. And tonight I see fit to entertain, Lieutenant Dinh.”

“You would lower yourself to sleep with a…”

“Stop right there, Denis. Of all the people in this house right now, the one maybe most like me is this gentleman. And I would prefer it if you talked to the Madame to find a new girl if you insist on insulting our other guests,” Tammany said, her eyes flashing almost amber in the yellow glare coming from the old lampshade.

“What’s da ruckus here, Tammany? I’ll not have one of my girls talking in dat tone to a customer without damn good reason,” Sabine said, her own tone serving notice who was allowed.

“I was just ‘splaining to Denis that I’m nobodies property here. That I can choose who I take back to my crib, unless you choose otherwise. An’ I hope you would accept my decision tonight, Madame Sabine,” Tammany said.

”You want to be with dis China boy,” Sabine said, nudging Hertienne from between Tammany and Dinh.

“I would, ma’am. Just to wish one of our newest neighbors a special Madame Sabine’s Rest bon temps.

“I see,” the Madame said. And she did, seeing tammany’s earnest interest in the Vietnamese pilot.

“If I may, Madame,” Dinh interrupted. “I don’t wish to get the lovely Miss Tammany into any trouble with you my first night visiting your lovely house. I will accede to your authority, of course.”

“You are a silver-tongued devil, aren’t you, honey?” Madame Sabine said.

“Marguerite? Would you please come entertain Lieutenant Hertienne this evening, ma chérie?” Madame Sabine called to a dark-eyed Creole girl lounging near the bar.

“Excusez-moi, Madame, Mademoiselle Marguerite, but I believe I shall return to the base. Bonsoir, Tammany.” Hertienne said. “Thiếu úy, tôi sẽ được nhìn thấy bạn trên cơ sở,” he added as he brushed by Dinh’s shoulder.

“Yes, Lieutenant. I look forward to our meeting again…on-base or wherever you’d prefer,” Dinh said.

Shortly after Hertienne slammed the door leaving Madame Sabine’s, Tammany Bazanac, leading Dinh Hien Chien by the hand, quietly closed the door to her room.

An hour later, lying together in Tammany’s bed, Dinh said, “Why did you come over to me as you did, especially since the dashing French officer seems to think you have a mutually exclusive relationship?”

“Do you mean why’d I take a shine to you when Denis thinks I’m his girl and his alone?”

“Yes, exactly,” Dinh said and chuckled.

“‘Cause you reminded me of someone I used to know.”

“I do? A Tonkinese engineer from the Red River Delta not only in the United Stares, but down in Louisiana? If anyone doesn’t belong someplace, it is me here. And who is this person of whom I remind you?”

“Me,” Tammany said, kissing Dinh. “You’re not from here, I’m not from here. You’re yellow, I’m yellow. Looked like your Chinese buddies didn’t quite accept you, using you for your language skills. The girls here, the they only accept me because I draw more Johns they can nab, maybe even for a husband. Even a whore can be a Barksdale Pigeon.”

“Oh, the Army officers warned us about them, like they were bloodsucking bayou bats.”

“Well, they kinda are,” Tammany said. “And now here’s another thing I only just learned. You’e from the Red River in your country and I am from the Red River of the South in mine.”

“Those are some pretty logical reasons, i would have to admit,” Dinh said with a smile and a hug.

“Oh, there’s one more thing.”

“What’s that, Tammany?”

“When I laid eyes on you I got the dribbly shivers.”

“The drib…”

“Yeah like this.” Tammany took Dinh’s hand and pulled it under the covers to touch her.

“Ohhhh… of course. Those dribbly shivers.”

Dinh slept with Tammany several times over the next few weeks, but his visits stopped abruptly, which coincided with a renewed interest in her from Denis Hertienne.

“Tammany, would you please see to Monsieur Denis’ needs tonight?” Madame Sabine said one evening.

“But…”

“I don’t think that sweet China boy’s coming back, ma chérie.”

“How can you say that, Madame? That boy, he loves me. And I…”

“Now you stop right dare, Tammany. If I taught you one ting in diss life, it’s not to get attached to any one John,” Sabine said. “Especially one who’s only here for a couple months. An’ dat boy’s not gion’ home to Kansas, chil’. He goin’ halfway roun’ da world, first to fight an’ den to live. If he survive the first part.”

Hertienne stood nearby wearing an expression more smug than his usual superior air.

“An’ what are you doin’ looking’ like the cat that swallowed the canary, Lieutenant?” Tammany said.

Hertienne said, “Oh nothing. I warned you to stay away from his type. Lazy, untrustworthy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a Japanese sympathizer or a…”

“A what, Denis? A brilliant young man, passionate about ridding his country of oppression? A threat to your interests?”

“Tammany, enough. You take the Lieutenant to your room and show him a good time. We’ll talk about diss later. Now bouge ta queue, move your sweet little tail in there now,” Madame Sabine said with distinct finality.

“Yes’m, come with me, Lieutenant,” Tammany said, taking Hertienne’s arm and walking to her room, where she performed her services in a most perfunctory manner.

“What is wrong with your, girl?” Hertienne said, lying atop Tammany, who gave up her body to him, but nothing else.

“I am paying for a bit more enthusiasm, Tammny,” Hertienne said, pinching Tammany’s breast.

“Ow, that hurt, Denis. stop that or I’m calling Madame.”

“I doubt she would do anything, especially now that the FBI is watching the house,” Hertienne said.

“The FBI? What are you talking ‘bout?”

“I told you, Tammany, I wouldn’t be surprised if our good Lieutenant Dinh is not only a poor pilot, but a communist, as well.”

“How do you know this, Denis,” Tammany said, wriggling out from under the Frenchman.

“Oh, I don’t know. He just the look of one of those scum who tried collectivizing my father’s plantation and raising hell with government officials from Saigon to the Chinese border,” Hertienne said with the hint of a smile.

“Wait a minute.” Tammany said. ”The Madame mentioned something about the FBI watching the house. What’ve you done, Denis?”

Hertienne handed her a $50 bill and said, said, “Ah, Tammany, I do so enjoy your childlike nature. You remind me so much of a Vietnamese girl fresh out of the country and into the fleshpots in Haiphong.”

“What have you done to my Chien, Denis?” Tammany said, her voice rising and her eyes welling up.

“Well, I might have mentioned to the authorities that we might have a Communist sympathizer and sabotaging fifth columnist on base. Then I told them about the slant-eyed pilot who might crash his plane into something symbolic. Lives could be lost.”

“You didn’t!” Tammany said, turning her back to Hertienne at the side of her bed.

“Oh, but I did, Tammany. By now that mongrel is being placed in a cage in New Orleans where he belongs.

“I love that man. Denis how could you?” Tammany said.

“I was not going to be usurped in your heart by some little yellow mongrel.”

“Denis, you’re not in my heart. You are only in my bed and that only because Madame Sabine ordered me to do so.”

Hertienne slapped Tammany with the back of his hand and she fell onto the settee in her room, .

“This is how we deal with persistent rebelliousness by our colonial charges,” Hertienne said.

“And this is how we deal with arrogant and abusive ‘chillin,’” in Louisiana, Sous-Lieutenant Hertienne. “Dinh has more integrity and courage than you ever will.”

And tis is how we deal with

“He’s barely out of the Stone Age, Tammany.  This is how we keep such rebellious children in line,” Hertienne said.

With that, Tammany calmly said, “And this is how we deal with those who deserve rebellion, Denis.” She pulled a short, thin blade of a knife from the hidden pocket beneath her pillow. She slashed it down Hertienne’s face and pushed it into his neck. She screamed, “Madame!”

Sabine and her bouncer burst through the door and Hertienne lay choking on his own blood.

“He was choking me, Madame. I knew he was going to kill me for being with Dinh. I had no choice but to defend myself.”

“All right, all right, cher. You get yourself cleaned up and Raoul will take care of the Lieutenant. Quick get yourself down to my room.”

“Yes’m,” Tammany said and rushed out into the hall wrapped in a bloody sheet.

“Raoul, introduce the Lieutenant to the hogs, would you?,” Sabine whispered discreetly. “We want no word of this going beyond these walls or the hog pen. You do understand, eh, cher?”

A week and a half later, Dinh Hien Chien walked into Madame Sabine’s Rest after seven days incarceration and questioning by the FBI in the Crescent City.

“Dinh!” Tammany squealed, jumping into his arms when she saw him.

That same week, base authorities reported a Free French officer had disappeared from Barksdale. The FBI investigated and found a secret radio and code books hidden in a false bottom of his equipment trunk. They further determined that Sous-Lieutenant Hertienne was actually a Vichy spy sent to infiltrate and disrupt Air Corps training and communications by any means.

Three weeks later, Tammany and Chien were married by the Catholic chaplain on base. This further made her not well-accepted by the girls at Madame Sabine’s. But that didn’t bother her when she moved to San Francisco. And eventually the girls missed her faintly mulatto honey drawing military bees to their beds. She also gave them hope, proving her theory that even a whore, a high yellow one at that, could earn her wings out of Shreveport as a Barksdale Pigeon.

I’m afraid I missed Day 16 of my May story-a-day challenge. Couldn’t be helped. And I found the prompt for Day 17 to be not as inspiring as I hoped. So I reached back to an old prompt I kept from Canadian writer and writing instructor Sarah Salecky. It was a very simple one, though produced this gargantuan (and still quite rough) first draft story. The prompt simply said to write a story with the title The Barksdale Pigeons. My historical knowledge and imagination took it from there.

Last Kisses

A soldier kissing his girl goodbye at Pennsylvania Station photographed by Alfred Eisenstadt,1944

Oh, sure, it was ardent, urgent, but
lacked the passion of those before, like
a period differs from an exclamation mark.
It lasted long, but it was the firmness,
the desperate I’m-not-letting-go
of its embrace that he remembered most.

It wasn’t the deep dive into
that warm pool of inviting flesh
in their other kisses, but it’d have to do
because this was their last kiss before
not seeing one another for a long time.
It felt as if she was kissing him
on his deathbed.

And on the other side, a boy kissed
his love that one last time, as well,
and surprised himself with the stiffness
of their lips against each other,
pressed hard together, like one would
in glue two things one to another.

Warmer, more expressive, were the tears
trickling down and mingling on all
their cheeks. Lips can lie.
Lips can speak in languages unknown
or misunderstood. “Auf wiedersehen,
meine Liebe” would be lost on the
girl who heard “Goodbye, my love.”

But tears speak the same language.
They express love, fear, warm hope,
even bitter finality on the lips that
could never profess that in words alone.
Even in a last kiss.

On Day 23 of NaPoWriMo 2017, a poem that has the title “Last (Something).” In my bleary-eyed wake-up half-hour on this Sunday, this story of two soldiers, each on opposing sides, speaking different languages though feeling the same emotions, came quickly to my mind and notebook. I love when that happens. I hate that its theme and truth ever have to happen.

At Loose Ends

As the higher, I’m reserving judgment on “highest,”
species on the planet, by now you would think at least
one of us humans could/would/should have thought
of a way to push ahead our evolution toward a means
of peaceful coexistence among one another.
But suspicion, greed, hatred and war are part of our DNA.

HUMANITY: loose ends with a common thread!

Even if there was an Adam, his sons kicked off the game
of man versus man with brother against brother.
The passage of time grew and multiplied these four horsemen
like funky fruit in Cain’s garden east of Eden.
Thereafter, whether you buy the Biblical or scientific,
original sinning Man’s evolution advanced his four antagonistic
Secondary Sins as much he did fire, steel and weaponry.
Even his thumbs evolved in opposition to his fingers.

HUMANITY: loose ends with a common thread!

Perhaps Man, the upright, big-brain atop the food chain,
never has evolved. Rather, his seed scattered, taking root
in the less green places across the fence from his neighbors’.
Our double helix rope frayed, never uniting us in
perpetual amity. We represent the apex of Nature’s orderly chaos,
only made in some God’s image. Or so the winners say.

HUMANITY: loose ends with a common thread!

On Day 11 of NaPoWriMo, I combined NaPoWriMo.net’s prompt for a poem in the Bop format with the prompt from my friend Sharyl Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines challenge. Hers is the refrain of this poem.

We Drink to the Old Fox

horse-back

The old man shivered as he sat upon his white horse. He sat as tall as he did in the old days, when he led armies into battle, even though the effort to do so was excruciating.

In some ways this feeling reminded him of the debacle from that winter so many years ago. The enemy commander a martinet who considered anathema the celebration of The Lord’s birth with song and libation. To him, it was just another day in the field for Prince and some other country. They were ready for the General’s force and cut it to ribbons.

The army he led this day was even less organized, untrained and most certainly less disciplined than that one. But that was a different fight, for a different overall goal, even if the reason these two armies faced one another across this western Pennsylvania field was one of the causes of the war that enabled them to be here in the first place. Taxes.

The old general stared across the field and could see His Excellency, once again at the head of his troops. He shook his head. That man’s courage and stupidity are exceeded only by his disregard for his own casualties and his amazing luck. He should have been killed or injured in ‘77, but for being thrown from his horse and landing upon a pile of his own dead, he thought.

The General estimated the opposing force as something more than 10,000 men, which was not a surprise, since His Excellency wanted to make a show of his power and station no matter where he sat, be it in the executive mansion or on the back of a black horse while he wore the Cornwallis’ surrendered saber.

“What are your orders, Gen’rul,” a Scots-Irish militia captain from hill country the other side of the Cumberland Gap said, his broad-brimmed hat in one hand, a dazzling curly maple piece of some Pennsylvania gunsmith’s art in the other.

The General, knowing his army of farmers and moonshiners would matter-of-factly drop the reins of their plow horses, pick up their long rifles and fight off seemingly overwhelming numbers of Shawnee at the first whoop, squinted with his diminished vision at the opposing army and said, “We wait. If His Excellency wishes another revolution, let him start it here.”

But the old man, his arthritis grating, his jaw throbbing and his once-buoyant ego now raised solely by its location upon this bluff and a 15-hand white gelding, began to think his hoped for rebellion against the unfair tax on individual distillers was doomed before it began. His show of force and resolve paled to the force and resolve of His Excellency, the President. These weren’t tax collectors and marshals they faced, but a standing army and organized militias.

He turned to his second-in-command, Nat Greene, who also suffered the wrath of Congress after December ‘76.

“I would say, General, that we have once again been overwhelmed by a superior force, not that our men don’t have principle and courage on their side. Does fighting Hamilton’s accursed tax merit the loss of life that we will no doubt suffer here?” the old soldier said.

“We’ve been on the losing end of too many of these scrapes, I fear, Sir. Would one more make that much of a difference in our already tarnished legacies?” Greene said, still the doleful devil’s advocate.

The blue-clad General weighed the odds and what capitulation would mean to his men, as well as himself as the proprietor the largest distillery in all the states. Better to give up some profit in whisky tax to that traitorous Hamilton then to lose all in a bloodbath here in western Pennsylvania.

Memory of his first defeat came back to him. His surrender to French and Indian forces out here in western Pennsylvania nagged at him his whole adult life. The retreats during the war for independence were one thing, but surrendering to a smug opposing leader was another.

The old General turned to Greene and his other lieutenants and said, “I think this has gone far enough. Bring me a white flag and tell the over-mountain men to return quickly to their farmsteads. I’ll take care of this. It’s men like me they really want their pound of flesh from. Besides, the revenue agents have to find our Kentuckians before they can collect from them. I’d say they stand a better chance of being killed by Shawnee, Chickamauga and Mingo than getting a patch of skin off our westerners.”

“You’re surrendering, General?” Greene asked, a look of disbelief and disappointment crossing his face.

“In a way. I’m surrendering so our neighbors won’t have to. I know His Excellency for what he is, courageous but foolhardy, hot-blooded and given to polishing his medals. I believe I shall bring along a piece of white cloth with which to help him,” the old General said.

Greene smiled and nodded.

“Yes, sir. I believe in a way you shall defeat him here without firing a shot.”

The General, Greene and some of his whisky-making colleagues from Virginia rode slowly out into the would-be field of combat under their white flag. Almost without hesitation, His Excellency spurred his black toward them, waving his lieutenants to follow him, as always, at the gallop.

Reining up, he smiled his smug smile as his men slowed to a trot behind him.

“Good day to you, Your Excellency,” the old General said, his jaw clenched, but in pain, not embarrassment.

“And to you, General. You look well, sir. I see the infirmities of rustic camp life have not diminished your old vigour,” His Excellency said. He stared intently into the old General’s eyes, judging what he deemed jealousy simmering in their rheumy condition.

“General, violence will not solve this dispute. It is the law of the nation, established by your very own erstwhile adjutant. You and your ‘army’ stand no chance against the assembled arms you see behind me. In fact, I see scores of your rebels already melting back into the countryside from which they came,” he said.

The old Genral turned in his saddle and hid a painful grin.

“I must agree with you, Your Excellency. Such a battle would leave this field littered with our dead. And while it would be a tragedy for independent men who turn the bounty of their crops into a public necessity, such bloodshed would leave your government bereft of individuals from whom to bleed your tax, something you and I fought a war to free our people from,” the General said.

“So, General, will you retire from the field and send your people back to their loving families and bountiful farmsteads?” His Excellency said.

“Aye, sir. You have bested me once again with a reputation built upon the bones of your enemies. You may send your tax collectors where you may to bleed us dry so the nation may drink to your honour,” the General said, and wheeled his white horse without another word.

“And to yours, good sir, and to your continued good health,” His Excellency replied.

As His Excellency returned to his cheering army, he couldn’t help but feel the swell of pride in his latest victory. This one not as a mere soldier anymore. No, this one, over the man Congress had once picked for leadership of colonial forces. This victory now as President of the United States.

With the huzzahs of his men ringing in his ears, President Benedict Arnold never heard the laughter of his opponent and his party at the pomposity and puffed up gullibility the Old Man had just leveraged to save his men from bloody defeat or capture.

Congress never appreciated these skills, he recalled; but that was politics, something he never wanted to play back in 1777 or now. The old fox was happy to return home to his farm and distillery on the Potomac and live out his remaining days as gentleman farmer George Washington.

Trying to catch up with my Story a Day challenge. I’m sure I win’s beat the calendar this time, but I’ll still try to get as many written as possible. Today’s story was supposed to be a third-person version——a changed point of view——from my first-person story in Week One, Another Victory for His Excellency. Had a little trouble figuring out how I’d accomplish it, but it came to me this afternoon. Two hours later, here’s your (a touch too long for flash fiction) first draft of how old General George, in his own way, outfoxed President Benedict.

Taps

US flags at graves at Veterans cemetery

US flags at graves at Veterans cemetery

My brother Eddie and I stared at the backs of the solemn folks in ill-fitting dark suits and veterans’  VFW garrison caps surrounding our father’s old drinking buddy’s casket. Eddie whispered, “I gotta take a leak.”

Typical Eddie.  Total mammal.  If he was outdoors, country road or golf fairway, he just couldn’t help stepping into the brush and watering the flora.

The reverend droned on about a better place and dust.  I couldn’t imagine anywhere better than this military cemetery, welcomed by its perfect white smiles of tombstones.

As gunshot salutes faded, Eddie reappeared, grinning like a fool.

“Where you been?” I said.

“Behind those bushes over there.”

“You were serious.”

“Heck, yeah, I was serious.  When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

“What’s so funny?”

“Ten years ago I had an argument with this guy at work. When they pulled us apart, I told him if I ever got the chance, I’d piss on his grave. Well, while I was over there, guess what I found?”

“You didn’t.”

“Uh-huh, I did.” He laughed through his crooked smile.

“And you think this is some kind of joke, right?”
“On him, yeah.”

“What if someone did something like that to your grave?”

“I wouldn’t know about it.”

“What if Ma decided to come visit your grave one Sunday and found some guy relieving himself on your head?”

“Never happen.”

“Could. How would you like it if visited Grandma’s grave and found some drunk kid off-loading Milwaukee’s Best on her headstone?”

“I’d kill him,” Eddie said.

“What if someone saw you?” I said.

“Look, I always look around to see if I can take a leak without being seen. I really didn’t piss on his grave. Just nearby. No harm, no foul, okay?” he said.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” we heard behind us. We turned to find a tall, black Marine in dress blues staring hard at us.

“Saw what you did, man,” he said to Eddie. “That’s just wrong and you gotta come correct. Or I’m gonna correct you.”

“I don’t know what you’re taking about,” Eddie said, choking on a dry gulp.

“It’s bad enough you dishonor the brave man who’s being buried here today, but then you go and dishonor another one.”

“My brother is very sorry for his abhorrent behavior.  Aren’t you?”

“Look, corporal, I’ve got a bladder problem and sometimes I just have to go…fast.  This was one of those times,” Eddie said.

“I heard you laugh and say you thought what you did was funny.  You know what I think is funny? When a tough guy gets called out and turns out he’s nothing but a bunch of air.  You a tough guy? Or something else?”

Eddie reached for the car door.

His hand was consumed by a large brown hand that seemed the size of a baseball mitt, only not as soft.

“Ow, leggo,” Eddie said, “that hurts.”

“You know what really hurts? That guys like you can be assholes in this country because of guys like me and the men you disrespected today.”

Eddie tugged, but the Marine just squeezed harder.

“Oh, God,” Eddie sobbed, dropping to his knees.

The sound of breaking china came from where their hands met in what seemed a sign of peace. Tears appeared in Eddie’s eyes.

“That’s the kind of behavior I expect in honoring the dead,” the Marine said. “I think you’ve come to accept disciplined, honorable behavior. Please stop by and honor these brave folks again, sir. Semper Fi.”

He released Edie’s hand, about-faced, and melted into the bushes where this all began.

Eddie tells everyone he broke his hand catching it in the car door. The tool.

A place-keeper story today for my ruptured duck of a Story a Day quest for September. Couldn’t get to the prompted one, but had this in the old sack. Poor story from a stumbling, sleep-starved September writer.